The 2016 Brexit referendum, we were often told during the campaign, was a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity for the British people to decide on future membership of the EU.
Of course the phrase ‘once in a generation’ has no clear meaning in general and certainly it has no clear political meaning. Yet, it makes sense. It suggests that a decision made at the referendum should not be quickly or easily reversible. This was a ‘big’ decision, the effects of which we would live with for some time, for better or for worse. What could possibly justify that claim and what might it imply about the democratic justification of holding a second referendum?
In an earlier blog I suggested that the idea of popular sovereignty made no sense. The people cannot lay down the rules by which they are given the final say in a political decision.
However, this does not imply that the idea of ‘a people’ makes no sense. When we talk about ‘a people’, we are not simply referring to the set of individuals who live in a country at a particular point of time. Phrases like ‘the British people’ mean something different from ‘the people who live in the UK today’.
When we talk about the British people, we have in mind a continuous entity that goes beyond the citizens living in a country at any one time. A history of the British people would not be a history of all the people alive today. It would be a history of the people who constitute the UK. We imagine a people stretching back a long way and also stretching forward into the future. A people has a past and a future that goes beyond the past and future of anyone who has ever been a member of that people.
But a people also has a past and a future in a different sense. For within every people, there are the particular people – the individuals – who make up that people at any one time. As one generation dies, so another comes to maturity. But this takes us back to the question what it means politically to talk of a once in a generation decision.
For the sake of argument, let us assume that it means that a decision once taken should not be reversed within the number of years that it would take someone to come to maturity. A person born in 2016 would come to the age of voting in to 2034.
If the referendum was a once in a generation opportunity in this sense, that would imply that a second referendum would have to wait until at least the middle of the 2030s. But why should there be this delay? To be sure, it takes until 2034 for someone born in 2016 to reach the age of voting, but there are many people who were under the age of voting in 2016 who have now reached voting age. The turnover of people in ‘a people’ is a continuous process.
Because generational change is continuous, it makes no sense to say that there should be a delay in holding another referendum until a new generation comes to political maturity. Rather, a once in a generation decision is a big decision because it concerns membership of an international organization.
EU membership involves a commitment to its rules and institutions. No international organization, and especially no organization with the dense degree of regulatory authority possessed by the EU, can function if its members adopt the attitude of ‘here today and gone tomorrow’, particularly if you add ‘maybe back another day’. The referendum decision is a once in a generation decision because few generations are called upon to make a decision with such momentous consequences.
Yet, the same reasons for saying that the referendum decision should not be quickly or easily reversible are the same reasons for making it a hard decision to take in the first place.
One way of doing this is to require in a referendum that a change be supported not just by a simple majority of those voting, but also by a certain threshold of those eligible to vote. For example, in the Scottish referendum on devolution in 1979, devolution required both a simple majority of those voting but also the support of at least 40 per cent of those eligible to vote. However, many people do not like fancy franchises of this sort for the good reason that any such threshold seems arbitrary.
Yet, there is another way of forcing more careful decision making, by analogy with two-chamber legislatures. Where a second chamber does not merely mirror the first, a two-chamber legislative processes will force a pause on making a major change of policy, whilst still allowing each chamber to operate on a simple majority.
By analogy, a second confirmatory referendum, pitching the current withdrawal agreement against the option of remaining, would be like having a two-chamber legislative system. Continuous generational replacement would mean that the second round would be decided by a set of people distinct from the first round, but it would not prevent those who voted in the first round and were still capable of voting in the second round from reconfirming their choice.
I suggest that it is against this background that we see the proposal by the MPs Phil Wilson and Peter Kyle to support the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement conditional on that agreement being put to the country in a second referendum. A once in a generation decision is a decision that would benefit from the two-round scrutiny that accompanies normal legislation.